Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Light in Dark Places

+Patrick Stuart has me thinking. He wrote an excellent introduction to our section on elementals which I'll likely post up soon (the complete section on elementals intro and all), and he seems to have become my current blog crush. If you're not reading False Machine and you've somehow found my blog, go and read his pretty words.

Patrick is working on a project about the dark places under the earth, and in one of his recent recap posts about the subject he said this, and I haven't stopped thinking about it:

"13 the impossiblity of darkness  - This one is important. I still envision a Light Economy as being a very important factor in driving/limiting exploration and travel. Light is a quasi-currency in fact. Always running out, always needing to get more. This should also key into making the players obsessed with light and the kind of light they have. It should highlight an important factor which is the living, liquid relationship between light and darkness."

I'm very excited about this project because I like caves. A lot. You see, I'm from Texas, and we've got two key cave ingredients, limestone and water, to generate a ton of the things. I even went so far as to get married in a cave this past December on the day the world was supposed to end. Since I'm opinionated, and since blogging is kinda all about having public conversations with strangers I figured I'd go ahead and throw a stone down this well.

Light in caves sucks. 

It's absolutely critical to being able to do anything in one, but it's awful and horrible, and I'd like to suggest that two aspects of this suckage be taken into consideration (since I'm opinionated). 

The Lantern Trope

If you do a google image search for "holding a lantern" you're going to find a ton of pictures that look like this: 
Do you know what happens when you actually do this and you're in a place underground where it's dark? You go fucking blind. This visual trope of holding a lantern up near your head (a non bullseye lantern) seems to have completely saturated the public psyche, and it's kind of unfortunate. I suppose from the perspective of gaming, where you hold your light source may just be pixel bitching but I got to learn first hand just how terrible this "hold the lantern up at the level of your head" actually is.

Last year, the wife (fiancee at the time) and I went out to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. While there, we discovered that they offered a lantern light tour through the Natural Entrance as their last tour of the day. Only 12 to 15 people were allowed to go, and I believe it was something you could only sign up for at the caverns themselves (no pre-registering over the ole internet). The offer a "Left Hand Cave" tour by lantern light that's a little more focused on "roughing it" in the cave, but for the tour we went on you walked from the Natural Entrance of the cave all the way to the Big Room. The walk is 1.25 miles and it takes approximately an hour with a stop in the middle to blow out your candles and stand in the dark.

Walking this trail by candle light was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. The cavern ceiling is quite high throughout, and the candlelight shimmers and jiggles and squirms all over it like a delicate golden net. I wish there was a way to capture the effect in a picture, but in the TOTAL darkness your light really is just a fragile little shell. The way the light shakes and moves just adds to the realization of your limitations, and the stuttering seemed to me at the time to be an effect that would actually make it easier for your enemies to hide from you in the shifting shadows.

These feelings may have also been influenced by the fact that at one point I decided it'd be fun to hold up the lantern like they do in all those pictures, only to be struck blind by the sudden flare of light. Blind may not be the right word, but the stupid automatically adjusting pupils of my eyes immediately shrank up in the face of the brightness, and even though I quickly lowered the lantern back down, I was left dazzled and the world seemed even darker as my eyes readjusted. This experience makes me think that eye patches might be exceptionally useful when adventuring since you can quickly swap the eye your using as your current lighting conditions and needs change. You can stay in tune with the darkness so to speak.

The whole time we were trekking I wanted very badly to have the lantern up above my head, or on my head like a miner's helmet. What's interesting is that in the common image of a person holding a torch, the flame of the torch (and thus the source of the light) is almost always up ABOVE the person's head instead of being EVEN with a person's head like the lantern pictures.

In the end, I'd say that torches seem like they'd be vastly superior when it comes to providing light when adventuring underground when compared to the "standard" lantern (glass on all sides). A glass-on-all-sides lantern is great for sitting in one spot and lighting up a room. Holding it and walking with it would be good for illuminating the ground and lighting up things that might trip you, but if you need to be using it as a mobile light source, you'd better go with a bullseye type lantern where the light emitted is DIRECTED and not permitted to just slop out every which way.

Light Makes Things Grow

All the caves in Texas (that I know about) are made out of limestone, or at least stones rich in calcium carbonate. This means that for the most part, the color of the inside of a cave is a white/off-white/bone-white/ivory. Video games always tend to display the walls and floor of a cave as being grey or dark, but (with the exception of lava tubes) that just isn't really the case. What's cool about this, from a fantasy setting perspective, is that limestone stains very easily, so if you've got a jack-in-the-box type monster living in a hole in your cave, you'll be able to give your players a metric fuck ton of agency by describing the permanent rust colored stains that surround it.

Additionally, if you tour a "commercial" cave (wired with lights and open to the public) as the tour guide leads the way they'll turn lights off and on, so that the only section of the cave that is lit is the one your group is standing in. They do this because if they keep the lights on shit will grow directly on the walls. If you look closely, you can often see spots of green algae growing on the walls near the lights, and it even has the sweet ass scientific name of "Lampenflora" since it's there only because of the light (i.e., humans).

If there's ever a spot in a cave where the lights are on frequently and traffic from the overworld passes through into the underworld, you're gonna get plants like algae, moss and ferns. If it isn't too gauche to make another invocation +Scrap Princess may be one of the few individuals that could appropriately actualize all the exotic possibilities associated with lampenflora. For example... The Moss Hog.

Moss Hog by Scrap Princess


  1. Whoa lampenflora is awesome.

    I had an idea for lightsource modelling which was you just drew up the map and then covered it up with a piece of cloth, the cloth having a hole cut in it to show the area illuminated. Seems like its not horrible enough to really give the full effect though.

    1. I dig that. Kind of like a "fog of war" effect in RTS video games.

  2. Aw, you look dead cute in your wedding photo's

    There is a guy on Youtube who has done a whole series of posts about the usefulness of torches

    (basically he is against them) I'm thinking more and more about dome kind of candle-based headlamp.

    I will have to find a way to get myself down in a cave at some point. Without direct sensory information there's a hard limit to what I can find out.

    I also need more info in medievil light technology. I still don't know how far you can get undergrund with a certain weight of candles/torches.

    1. I vote - light emitting bugs/plant/creature in a jar on a rope tied to a pole you can keep in your pack so the light is self supported, up and behind you.

      You could dangle it into areas to illuminate them, and you could tuck it under your arm (to protect it) when you're crawling through choke points.

      If it's living it'll last longer, and you can use it when you go through a sump.

      Man... if you had to crawl through a tight spot and push a lantern ahead of you, or try and manage an open torch and backpack... I seriously couldn't imagine doing that. It's madness. Seems like that'd be the time to just put it out and hope the hallucinations are friendly enough to guide you. :D

  3. How about safety lamps for miners,

    1. Interesting. I wasn't familiar with those, but with the flame lower in the lantern that seems like it'd be quite an improvement!